This Floating World is a Dream

I just saw Kurasawa’s The Hidden Fortress for the first time tonight. I can’t believe it took me this long.

Probably everyone knows that The Hidden Fortress was one of George Lucas’s primary inspirations for Star Wars, so I won’t go into that. I just want to call out one of my favorite scenes in the movie: the Fire Festival scene.

NewImageScreenshot from

The Fire Festival (himatsuri), the internets tell me, is a festival to “illuminate the path through the world of the living for the spirits of the departed.” In the movie, the peasants light a huge bonfire and dance around it to the beat of taiko, singing. As one film blogger says, the scene is “either a gorgeous song & dance routine inserted at just the right moment or a massively bad interruption of the action-packed story — depending on your point of view.” I go with the first view.

General Rokoruta and Princess Yuki, last survivor of the recently defeated Akizuki clan, along with their other companions, are forced to take part in the Festival to hide from the enemy soldiers of the Yamana clan. That’s Princess Yuki in the screenshot above, with the Romulan eyebrows. Doesn’t she look like she’s having fun? It was noticeable, actually, how peaceful and serene she looked as she danced in that great circle around the bonfire, especially compared to the tense looks on the faces of Rokoruta (Toshiro Mifune — he’s the dark figure to the right of her) and her other companions. I wish I could show you that scene, but I can’t find it on youtube. But I did find this one:

Isn’t it beautiful? The scene is the night before the General’s and Princess’s impending execution. Rokoruta has just apologized to Yuki for having failed her. Yuki tells him that the last few days were the best of her life, as she saw how the people lived in the real world outside her castle. She regrets nothing.

Hito-no ichochi-wa hito moyase.
(Burn a human life like a fire)
Mushi-no inochi-wa hi-ni suteyo.
(Throw an insect’s life into a fire)
Omoi-omoe-ba Yaminoyoya.
(Think it over. How dark this world is!)
Ukiyo-wa yume-yo. Tada-kurue.
(The floating world is no less than a dream. Just go crazy.)

— Literal translation of the Fire Festival song, thanks to a commenter on the IMDb discussion boards.

It’s a turning point for her, and perhaps for another character in the film, as well.

I like how Kurasawa uses folk practice (the himatsuri) not just for “cultural color,” but to illustrate one of the themes of the movie itself. It’s like the use of the water buffalo sacrifice ritual during the final confrontation between Willard and Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (the sacrifice was an actual Ifugao ritual). Or my absolute favorite of these scenes: the rice planting song at the end of Seven Samurai.

The Lords and the Shoguns come and go, the Samurai die out. But the villagers and the village life endure.

This floating world is a dream. Burn with abandon.

2 thoughts on “This Floating World is a Dream

  1. I have only seen Rashomon, but you’ve captured my interest in this Kurasawa film. How can I go wrong with advice from someone who can recognize Romulan eyebrows? Your final line was a perfect finish to the essay.

    1. Rashomon is terrific. Hidden Fortress is fun, especially if you are a fan of the original Star Wars movie. And I recommend several of Kurasawa’s non-samurai films, too. High and Low is a good one.

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